Tanzania’s operation to relocate Maasai herders from Loliondo has come under fresh international criticism over rights violations claims. A Human Rights Watch report published on April 27 repeated previous calls for an immediate halt to the “forced evictions” from Loliondo, which is located within the Ngorongoro wildlife conservation area, to Msomera, about 600 kilometres away, saying the programme was in violation of Maasai “rights to land, property, livelihood and culture.”
But, days before the report was published, Tanzania government representatives on April 24 appeared at a United Nations conference in New York to insist that the relocation plan was there to stay and outside interference on the matter was unwelcome.
Zuleikha Tambwe, counsellor at Tanzania's Permanent Mission to the UN, told the 22nd session of the UN Forum on Indigenous Issues that claims of persecution against the Maasai were unfounded because “no single tribe or community is legally entitled to exclusive ownership rights over any part of the land.”
The latest back-and-forth between government and international rights watchdogs brought back to the fore a controversial issue that has been simmering since June 2022, when Tanzania launched its Maasai relocation operation, amid violent clashes between police and pastoralists resisting the move.
Government officials have cited growing human-livestock numbers and resulting clashes between pastoralist and wildlife conservation interests in the area as the main reason for the operation, which has so far seen more than 3,000 Maasai relocated from Loliondo to Msomera along with their livestock, according to official figures.
About 1,500km2 of the 4,000km2 Loliondo area has been turned into a full-fledged game reserve named Pololeti under a new government strategy to strike a balance between conservation and local community livelihoods.
But critics have cited interests involving Otterlo Business Corporation, a Dubai-based hunting company said to be seeking trophy hunting access to the Loliondo area, as another possible behind-the-scenes reason for the relocation.
The operation is going on despite a 2018 East African Court of Justice injunction against "eviction" plans imposed after confrontations between Maasai and police in Loliondo. The injunction remains in place.
Ms Tambwe told the UN forum held from April 17 to 28 that none of Tanzania's 120-plus tribes can claim specific ancestral rights due to their historical roots being tied to centuries-old migratory movements of the Bantu, Cushitic, Khoisan and Nilotic groups.
The government delegation also complained that such international fora were becoming platforms to take regular “jibes” at Tanzania and try to make the country's leadership look bad over the Maasai relocation issue, asserting that this amounted to undue interference in sovereign affairs.
A Maasai group who attended the forum delivered a statement calling for more pressure on the government to address the issue of “evictions and forced displacement” more transparently and allow international human rights monitors to visit the disputed area without restrictions.
According to group leader Edward Porokwa, government efforts to get reluctant Maasai to move from Loliondo to Msomera have escalated to now include regular cattle seizures by security forces and grazing fines imposed by local government authorities in the Ngorongoro Conservation and Game Control Area.
Mr Porokwa, a lawyer, said more than 600,000 Maasai-owned cattle had been seized or killed and more than $2.5 million meted out as fines for grazing in the area since June 2022, while dozens of nursery schools, water sources and health clinics had been closed down as part of the strategy.
“It is a forcible relocation, denying the locals access to basic social and economic services and making their life unbearable while also ensuring that the Maasai pastoralist way of life is destroyed,” he said.